If you are anything like me, you love eating out. Since I was a kid, I always enjoyed going to a restaurant and trying new things (or, in the case of a mexican place in northern Virginia, the same damn chicken quesadilla for YEARS). For me, it was more than just good food, or not having to prepare meals or clean up after myself.
Going out to eat meant that we were all happy. The atmosphere in most restaurants is light-hearted and fun. Rarely are people in bad moods when out to eat, and it is that environment that I enjoyed spending time in. And to this day, I still enjoy going out to eat as much as I can.
DROPPING SOME TRUTH: Eating out is still more expensive than cooking at home; make eating out the exception rather than the rule, even when using the tips in this article.
However, there is no getting around the fact that going out to eat costs money. In some cases, lots of money.
I have been to restaurants where a 4-person meal came out to a whopping $500. Ouch!
Even though I didn’t pay for this particular meal, the thought of spending half a grand on a single meal seemed unbelievable. Guess what? It is.
Believe it or not, there is a way to still go out to eat – even multiple times a week – and save good money over the cost of “nice” restaurants. And no, I’m not talking about fast food. I never eat at fast food restaurants. You probably shouldn’t either.
It’s simple: Don’t tip!
Whoa! Don’t tip? Before you call me a heartless bastard, let me explain. I’m not recommending that you be a complete douche bag and screw a waiter or waitress out of a tip at a sit-down restaurant. Instead, what I’m saying is don’t go to sit-down restaurants.
If you absolutely must go (hint: you don’t), go to these places once a month, maybe less. Instead, visit places where tipping is not necessary and the price of food is less! You’re still going out to eat, but you are not paying for the premium of getting served at your table.
The truth of the matter is most people don’t have to “get served” to have a good time. To-go orders rarely require tips, and still allows you to enjoy some of your favorite places without the need to tack on another 15% to 20% in tips.
Or, go to “order at the counter” places if you prefer to eat at the restaurant rather than at home. Restaurants like Chipotle and Panera Bread allow you to order your food at the counter and take it to your seat. Visit these restaurants instead of those who bring every damn dish of food directly to your table.
Hell, while we’re at it, here are a few other tips to help keep your bill where ever you happen to be dining.
- Get water, not soda – Never – under any circumstances – pay for the privilege of drinking carbonated syrup instead of pure, healthy water. Even tea and coffee costs money. A family of 4 can easily save $10 by drinking water at restaurants instead of sodas or tea. Your health will thank you, too.
- Embrace Groupon, Restaurant.com and other discount web sites – There are a ton of deals online for some serious savings at local restaurants. Try finding a deal online through web sites like Groupon and Restaurant.com before going out.
- Eat out for lunch, not dinner – Restaurants always charge more for dinner, especially sit down places. Consider switching your going out meal to lunch instead of dinner and take advantage of inexpensive lunch specials at many different restaurants.
Eating out is fun, and I love doing it as much as the next guy. But remember, eating at restaurants can easily put a pretty serious dent in your budget that could otherwise be used for saving for retirement, so be smart about how you spend your money on food.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.